School of the Arts (SOTA)


​​​​​​​An award-winning program that transforms students through arts and community


 Studying at the School of the Arts (SOTA) requires full immersion in downtown Tacoma. At any moment students dance at the Performing Arts Center, debate social justice at the Old Post Office building or draw scientific diagrams at the University of Washington Tacoma campus. 

SOTA purposefully integrates into the community, spreading classrooms across three urban buildings. The innovative school offers a focus on the arts and an opportunity for students to recognize their connection to each other and the community. 

​Students in the vocé class practice performing a capella
​ ​​​​​​​​​“SOTA is all about community,” Co-Director Paul Kelly said. “Connecting within our school community is extremely important. Our students are also part of the downtown community and interact with local businesses in many ways, including through internships.”

Since opening in 1998, SOTA consistently produces graduates who finish high school on time and with high achievement. Most pursue advanced degrees, in the arts or other fields.

Discovering life goals

The songwriting classroom space at SOTA exudes a coffeehouse vibe. Music posters dot the walls. Students sit in armchairs listening to classmates perform original compositions. 

Sophomore Ryan McLean leans into the piano as he plays and sings three of his songs. Ryan left a private school to enroll here after learning as a middle school student about SOTA’s songwriting and audio-recording programs. He earned selection through the school’s application and lottery system.

With four instruments under his belt, songwriting felt like a natural next step. But audio-recording offered an incredible new discovery: a love of physics. He plans to study physics and business in college and pursue music as a side passion. 

“SOTA helps me grow in understanding how I can pursue a full-time job and music,” Ryan said. “The most rewarding thing is what I get back from the community – the support from friends and teachers and the fact that everyone’s available for me to come and ask questions.” 

​Ryan McLean listens to feedback after performing in songwriting class.
​ ​​​​SOTA staff intend for students to make discoveries just like Ryan’s. Many go on to successfully pursue art full-time, while others use their exposure to the creative arts to add value to their career paths. 


“We want to teach our students to be creative thinkers and problem solvers,” SOTA Co-Director Jon Ketler said.

Choosing a ‘major’ 

SOTA students follow a performing or visual arts pathway. Within those “majors” they drill deeper to pick a specialization like dance, photography, painting or audio-recording. The pathway allows students to gain depth in a single topic, although art classes outside the major are encouraged. 

SOTA students study more than art. Like every high school student in Tacoma, they meet graduation requirements in math, science and the humanities. SOTA’s block schedule (extended class periods) allows students to take core academic classes and arts-focused courses. Students also can enroll in advanced science classes at SOTA’s sister school, the Science and Math Institute (SAMI). 

Community and opportunity 

SOTA provided recent graduate Ian Wheelock community and opportunity. Ian battled through a broken arm to complete his senior project of drawing every senior. He taught himself to illustrate with his opposite hand while his arm healed. 

“I thought I would never finish, but I drew two or three with my left hand. Now I can draw with both hands, and I know all my classmates really well.”

Ian arrived at SOTA with a lifelong love of illustration, but he discovered another passion for songwriting. He offers freshmen advice he gathered: “Have a focus when you come, but choose other things you’re interested in and try those classes. Don’t be afraid to break out into stuff you don’t know about. This is the place to explore it.” ​​​​​​


Get to know SOTA

Innovation Model: SOTA provides an arts-focused education in an urban setting in downtown Tacoma. Students choose a specific arts major, and also complete internships in their area of study. The school’s motto is “Community, Empathy, Thinking, Balance” and the teachers strive to incorporate those values into their classes.

Students best served: Any student can apply to go to SOTA. The application process happens during the eighth grade year. Students should have an interest in the arts, though they don’t need have already excelled in the arts.

Grades: Ninth through Twelfth

Students: 500

Teacher training: Many of SOTA’s instructors are artists and/or have professional experience in their area of instruction. The school also hires adjunct instructors, who are working professionals with art expertise.

School report card

School Web site

Special clubs and after-school programs: Health and Fitness Club • Student Chefs • Dance Committee • Change Starts Now, an environmental club • SOTA Fashion Club • SOTA Actors Guild • SOTAbots • Composting Club • Mountain/Road Bike Club • Savoy Swing Club • Honor Society • Bible Club • Student newspaper • SOTA Knitwits, a crafting club

Related links:SOTA earns School of Distinction in Arts Education awardElements of Education​​

Designated Innovative School - Washington State